With three competing press nights in Manchester theatreland this evening, I chose the opportunity to visit the venerable old Royal Exchange building in St Anne’s Square to review their opening offering for the Autumn/Winter season, an adaptation of Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ which like the character of Estella had great beauty but lacks a little heart.
This is one of Dickens most oft adapted novels, only ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Oliver Twist’ beat it for popularity and already in 2023 we have had two versions of Dickens tale of class mobility and class intransigence served up, Steven Knight gave us his spiky television adaptation earlier this year and Eddie Izzard’s extraordinary one woman show was a huge success in London over the Spring, This ubiquity means that writers are having to utilise the story in increasingly ambitious ways in order to try and say something new, or risk it being ‘just another’ classic adaptation.
Tanika Gupta is well versed in bringing fresh sentiment to classic stories, her ‘Hobson’s Choice’ at this theatre was one of my theatrical highlights in 2019 and this time she has taken the opportunity to relocate Pip, Magwitch, Miss Havisham et al to early 20th Century India during the attempted partition of Bengal by the British ruling Raj. Pip is transformed into Pipli (Esh Alladi), a poor village boy apprenticed to Jagu (Asif Khan) as a cobbler (rather than blacksmith), who’s life chances are transformed by a mysterious benefactor. The movement of the action in time and location gives the obvious opportunity to explore the story through the prism of race as well as class, with Pipli is transformed into a ‘gentleman’ at the expense of his racial identity. The lawyer Jaggers (Stephen Fewell) echoes Macaulay in his remark that the British had succeeded in ‘Creating a middle class in India that was Indian in blood and colour, but British in taste and morals’, succinctly summing up Pip’s journey through the social strata of society. The attitudes of the Raj find their apogee in the character of Miss Havisham (Catherine Russell), with cold paternalism and racial superiority as much as spurned love being the motive for her treatment of Pipli and her shaping of the character of Estella (Cecilia Appiah) as her revenge on the world.
Whist this all worked very well, what was less successful was the adaption from page to stage Dickens crammed his books full of character, plot, coincidence and incident and, originally written in serial form, virtually every chapter has something that ‘happens’ to his characters. This makes squeezing everything in very difficult, and even in a production lasting nearly three hours the pace and storytelling was inconsistent. Gupta made it even harder by making the background story of the Bengal partition intrinsic to this plot, necessitating large swathes of exposition to explain the cultural and political significance of this part of Indian history. Both Herbert Pocket (Giles Cooper) and Malik (Andrew French in the Magwitch role) were overused in this regard at the expense of their character development. As an avid political historian I found this fascinating but undoubtedly it served to distract from the main thrust of the narrative, this story deserves its own platform rather than being bolted on in such an unwieldy manner.
The deceptively simple set by Rosa Maggiora consisted of two raised concentric runways around the circular stage, fringed with greenery and Indian lattice screens they hinted at time and place and allowed the myriad action to take place without the necessity of constant intrusive scenery changes. Both the Lighting (Joshua Carr) and Sound/Music (Arun Ghosh) were successful in creating atmosphere and the Movement Director Neil Bettles choreographed some sublime ‘passage of time’ dumbshow scenes as the smell of incense pervaded the theatre
Esh Alladi provided a suitably wide eyed and innocent Pipli, adding further to his growing reputation after his excellent performance as Will Mossop in Hobson’s Choice on this same stage. Aided by Cooper as Pocket, he added humour to balance some of the heavy exposition and political themes, the comedic highlight of the night being Herbert explaining British table manners to an uncomprehending Pipli. Stephen Fewell contributed lovely touches of pomposity to the gravitas of Jaggers whilst Russell accentuated the bitterness of Miss Havisham well, although her death scene was a real damp squib. However, acting laurels go to Asif Khan, beautifully embodying the pure love that Jagu feels for Pipli, simple touches of the shoulder and eye contact conveying the depth of his filial affection, exploding into protective anger when offered financial inducements by Jaggers, a superb performance.
This is a production with the noble ambition to illustrate a period of Anglo/Indian history that had great significance and served as a precursor to the successful fight for Indian independence four decades later There is a fascinating story to tell of this era, however utilising Dickens novel to smuggle it into the stage was a decision which was only partially successful, it left this production tonally inconsistent and trying to simply fit too much in despite a near three hour run time.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 13th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: